Coming from London—one of the most multicultural, diverse cities in the world—means that where you originate from is often a topic of conversation. I remember people saying to me that because I was born in London, I was English. My mum is Irish, my dad is Kurdish, and I am a Londoner—and I grew up with strong ties to both my Irish and Kurdish identities. I spent my Sundays at Kurdish school, my school holidays in Ireland, and countless hours at both the Irish and Kurdish community centres. Even my birthday cakes would say ‘Biji Lana’ (translates to long live Lana).
My life has been surrounded by and filled with rich culture. In recent weeks, the situation in Kurdistan has made me feel more connected than ever to my Kurdish identity. I have always found that whenever someone knows what being ‘Kurdish’ means, I instantly feel pleased that it doesn’t need to be explained. I would like everyone to know who the Kurds are—in the same way we know who the English, Spanish or Australians are. So, instead of writing more about the long oppressive history of the Kurds, please let me tell you about the strength, courage and culture of my people. Through education and creating an understanding of different cultures and their history, maybe we can help to prevent the same atrocities from repeating themselves in the future. Here is the story of my Kurdish Grandparents.
It is common in Kurdistan, especially in the past, for parents to organise or arrange a marriage for their children. The process can go something like this: when someone is ready to get married, they will tell their parents who will then look in the community for a suitable match. The most sought after qualities would be someone with similar interests, a strong family unit and someone who is well educated. If the two suitors meet and agree to marry, the fathers of the newly matched couple will organise the wedding ceremony. Many Kurdish families have several children. In the past, it would have been typical to have six to twelve children per family. The infant mortality rate in the past was extremely high, so many families lost children. My great grandparents had seven children and the youngest was the only to survive—the survivor was my grandfather, Ari. As an only child, he was very precious and the centre of his parent’s world. When it came to the time he wanted to marry, they were very particular about choosing a suitable match. A one child family was so rare that when Ari’s father (my great grandfather) started to look for a suitor for his son, he wanted a girl who was also an only child. He knew no one in the local community, so he put word out to help him find this special, lone girl. Ari’s father was a known religious man from Halabja (Southern Kurdistan) and a talented tailor. With his connections he found a family in the very small mountain village of Tawela that had only one daughter—my grandmother, Zara.
The small family were fruit and walnut farmers. After getting in contact and discovering they had similar interests, the very young couple decided they were happy with the match and married soon after. They moved to Slemani as soon as they married—a heaving city in Southern Kurdistan surrounded by mountains. Ari was a working student when he was recruited by a local business man who had noticed his ambition and work ethic. He quickly worked his way up to managing the import and export food trade at the biggest wholesaler in Slemani. Like most Kurdish people, Ari and Zara were burdened by the political situation in Kurdistan and it was no secret that they were passionate supporters of Kurdish rights and independence. Throughout their relationship, Ari was imprisoned three times for his beliefs. During his first prison sentence (at the age of 22), he hand-stitched a cloth portrait of Zara wearing traditional Kurdish clothes—it remained one of my grandmother’s most prized possessions. In one of Ari’s later prison sentences, he was transferred to Nugra Salma—a famous prison in the South of Iraq near the Saudi Arabian border. The prison was known for its inhumane treatment of inmates and Ari was tortured here, regularly beaten over the feet and back until blood was flowing. Sadly, he also spent time in the infamous Abu Ghraib. Ari spent a total of two years in prison.
After his prison sentence, Ari spent a lot of time in the mountains working alongside other like-minded Kurds with the same hopes for Kurdistan. Zara wholeheartedly supported her husband’s beliefs and, although she was not formally educated, she was very intelligent and knew the land and mountains extremely well. She took high risks visiting political prisoners in jail to deliver information and food to the Peshmerga (freedom fighters) in the mountains. On one occasion, Zara bravely helped a political prisoner escape. She visited him in jail and brought him women’s clothes and identification for him to use as disguise. When he escaped, he hid in my grandparents’ house—but the government soon came knocking. The army officers beat Zara and dragged her around the house looking for the escaped prisoner. Fortunately, Zara knew how to outsmart the soldiers—she had cleverly hidden the prisoner by rolling him tightly in a carpet.
Ari and Zara had ten children, but sadly lost two to diseases. Their youngest of the family, Ako, was killed when he was only thirteen. Their seven remaining children grew up in Slemani. They were yet another generation weighed down by the limitations the surrounding governments placed on their people. Two of their four sons became Peshmerga, both surviving years in the mountains. My grandparents had seventeen grandchildren, some of whom have children themselves now. As a result of the political situation and attempted genocides in Kurdistan, some of my cousins fled to different countries around Europe. My grandfather Ari passed away in 1998 before it was safe for my dad to return to Kurdistan and I never got to meet him. Ari died without meeting his grandchildren in Europe and only seeing his son once in the twenty-six years during the uprising when 3 million Kurds fled to the mountains due to the threat of gas attack. Distressed over what was happening, my dad decided to go there using the least risky route—through Iran. In the few days he had in London before he left, he collected money to bring with him for families that had been affected by the uprising. My aunties in Ireland did a coffee morning to raise money. My mum remembers so many generous people posting money through our letter box for my dad to bring with him. My dad sold his small London business (“Lana’s Fashion”) along with all the stock to bring the money to Kurdistan. When he arrived in Kurdistan, his family had no idea that he had arrived. It wasn’t safe for my dad to go to the family home in Slemani, especially as his parents lived near Iraqi government officials. When word got out that my dad was home, the family gathered his siblings and other relatives in the house. In order to avoid attention, they sat in total darkness waiting for my dad’s return. My dad arrived at his parents’ house in complete darkness—not even candle light in any room of the house—and had to recognise people he had not seen in years through voices, hugs, and tears. Everyone stayed up all night in complete darkness, catching up quietly on years that had passed. He stayed in Slemani for just that one night, as it was too much of a risk to stay any longer. My dad left Slemani with a trusted family friend in the early hours of the morning to head back into the mountains. His brother, Shakir, soon joined him and they stayed in a tent for five days before my dad had to return to London. In those five days, my dad and Uncle Shakir spent time helping to reunite families who had lost each other in the mountains. The money my dad brought from London was used to set up clean water supplies for the displaced people who were living in tents around the mountains.
My grandmother, Zara, passed away at the age of 84 in 2011, surrounded peacefully by family. Fortunately, I had spent quite a bit of time with her. During our visits to Kurdistan we would wake in the morning to the sounds of my grandmother making us a traditional Kurdish breakfast of fresh flat bread, cheese, honey, fresh yogurt and a glass of black tea. This was always my favourite part of the day there; we would sit on the floor, cross-legged around a cloth on the floor. My grandmother could still sit cross-legged on the floor at the age of 84. My kind uncle, who lived with my grandmother, would return home from work every day with a new Kurdish traditional sweet for me to try. Despite their losses and hardship, Ari and Zara were very happily married for the rest of their lives. They adored each other and their relationship was unbreakable.
I was nineteen on my first visit to Slemani when my grandmother, Zara, gave me a very special gift she had kept hidden away for so many years: the hand-stitched portrait my grandfather had sewn for her in his first incarceration as a political prisoner. My Kurdish family spent their lives supporting the freedom of the Kurdish people. Being Kurdish doesn’t just mean a long and dark history— it means that through the pain and struggle there is strength, courage, community and determination. There are 40 million Kurdish people around the world with similar stories to tell and there is a large chance that anyone who reads this knows one of them. Next time you meet someone Kurdish, you could make their day by simply knowing where they have come from: Kurdistan.
*I changed the names of my grandparents in this piece of writing as ease for the reader; my grandparents had very difficult names for an English speaker to pronounce. Ari is the name of one of my lovely uncles, who lived with and looked after my grandmother so well before she passed away.
Thank you for reading,
Lana (translates to Home of a Lion)